Division of Juvenile Justice Services seeks to improve systemic, individual outcomes

Deseret News
By Marjorie Cortez

MILLCREEK — Life as she knows it is on hold.

But the 17-year-old girl, identified by her initials T.C., says time spent at the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services‘ Observation and Assessment unit in Millcreek has given her an opportunity to “take a step back and think about what I’ve been doing.”

“I think I needed it, in a way,” she said.

T.C. was committed to the unit by a juvenile court judge for a 45-day evaluation to identify her needs for supervision and services. The early intervention program includes extensive psychological, educational, physical, behavioral, risk and social assessments.

The reports developed by caseworkers helps juvenile court judges make decisions regarding youths and help Juvenile Justice Services caseworkers and probation officers identify programs and interventions to help them succeed.

The early program is representative of the changes in policy and practice that have resulted in sharp declines in juvenile arrest rates and youth confinement rates since 1997.

Juvenile arrest rates — including violent crimes — fell by nearly 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Meanwhile, youth confinement rates for the same period declined by nearly half, according federal statistics.

In Utah, trends in juvenile justice are carefully tracked in a partnership between the juvenile courts and Juvenile Justice Services in the Department of Human Services.

In Utah, the numbers of delinquent offenses, which include everything from truancy to felonies, dropped by 57 percent between 1997 and 2013.

Just as T.C. is taking stock of the behaviors that landed her in juvenile court, Utah is one of five states that will take part in a national pilot project to further home in on policies and practices that improve outcomes for youths. Reducing recidivism and helping youths transition into productive adults are among the key objectives.

“We can talk about the programs, services and treatment we provide, but good intentions alone won’t reduce the likelihood of re-offending,” said Susan Burke, director of Utah’s Division of Juvenile Justice Services.

Utah, along with Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas and Pennsylvania, will implement recommendations in two recent publications that detail what state and local governments can do to further improve outcomes for youths who come in contact with the juvenile justice system. The publications were produced by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the National Reentry Resource Center.

Burke said the white paper summarizes “the new lens in which we should be viewing each state system. I for one am eager to get started.”

The recommendations include engaging families in decisions regarding their children. While teenage girls and boys committed to the Salt Lake Observation and Assessment program live in dormitory settings, the division also has services that allow children to live in their own homes under supervision of Juvenile Justice Services workers when appropriate.

The vast majority of youths who are referred to the program return to their homes and communities.

“We know that the kids are eventually going to return to their families so the families are very involved,” said Nathan Cruz, observation and assessment supervisor. “They get information on what their kid is facing. Sometimes it’s just an eye-opener for them. ‘Oh, OK. That’s how you deal with it.’ It’s really great to see that happen here.”

Parents visit once a week, and the program conducts parent nights where staff lead family skill-building sessions.

“We do some psycho-educational groups for the youth and for the families. We also do some connections with services in the community so the families themselves can get some interventions, I think, in a really cost-effective way,” Cruz said.

Another of the recommendations is to strip “scared straight” measures from juvenile justice programs as a means to deter crime.

The programs have been discredited by researchers as ineffective and even harmful to youth. One review of “scared straight” programs determined the approach results in higher recidivism rates.

Elizabeth Sollis, communications director for the Utah Department of Human Services, said the programs are not used in Utah’s juvenile justice system.

Chris Roach, deputy director of Juvenile Justice Services, said practices have evolved over the years as research has endorsed or disproven certain approaches and technology has enabled the juvenile justice system to more accurately collect and analyze data.

Years ago, juvenile justice systems ran on the philosophy that punishment or restrictions were the best means to stem delinquent behavior.

“In actuality, research shows that’s not the right approach,” Roach said. “We just get better at providing what’s actually going to reduce delinquency, which is building skills, education, rapport building, healthy adults role modeling good behavior for youth. It’s about helping the youth engage into the program of treatment instead of feeling shamed or punished for their behavior.”

While those approaches may cost more on the front end, helping youths successfully transition into adulthood is far less expensive than their further involvement in the criminal justice system, he said.

“In the long run, it’s about keeping youth from penetrating deeper into the system,” Roach said.